My favourite movie critic is Richard Brody of The New Yorker. Every year, he publishes a list of the best and worst movies from around the world — the list has been my staple for years. In 2014, Brody mentioned Oscar notable Birdman in the worst category. This year, The Revenant gets some flak. Brody suggests that for both movies by the director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the gap between ambition and delivery is filled not by imaginativeness, but by a grandiose attitude: a balletic camera trying to hide a spiritual hollowness. I agree.
In literature, too, there are examples of bluster filling the gap between high ambition and actual content.
Altaf Tyrewala’s debut novel, No God in Sight, garnered near-universal praise over a two-year period from 2005 to 2007, in which it was published in country after country and translated in various European languages. My Penguin copy had a front-cover Salman Rushdie blurb laden with numerous five-star adjectives. Manil Suri’s back-cover blurb called it “a bullet-train of a novel,” in a good way.
Tyrewala’s thin novel is indeed big on ambition. It is composed of dozens of vignettes, almost all in first person. What we have is not a single narrative arc but a variety of situations, all of which are supposedly contributing to the meaning inherent in the title. Tyrewala comes up with good scenarios, most of them involving Muslim protagonists. There are abortionists, shoe sellers, young lovers, cops, rich people, fake Urdu teachers, and others — all struggling to get by. But Tyrewala’ writing chops do not turn up routinely. Sample the below exchange between a woman and her boyfriend:
“I’m sorry Abhay, you’re just too crude! We’ve tremendous physical chemistry, agreed, but we can’t be in bed all the time. What about the mornings or during meals? What do we talk of then? How many programmes you debugged? I want someone immersed in life, someone who can buy me diamonds while fascinating me with his take on Pynchon’s works.”
‘No, Swati, no!’ I looked up from between her thighs. ‘You’re the one for me! Give me two months. When I come back to Boston, I promise I’ll be dripping with the humanities like you won’t believe.’
The word-limit of this column cannot accommodate other examples of shoddiness, which together make one wonder if Tyrewala’s conceit of multiple 1,000-word vignettes isn’t a ploy to hide the sub-standard nature of his content. It is a pity that the structure happens to be the most definitive thing here; the component stories, of variable quality, do not contribute to the initial design uniformly.
The novel reads like a brief survey of lives, and the more-or-less aleatory nature of the selections bares the writer’s deficiencies. Had there been more of a plan, had the writing been better, and the vignettes longer, the book would have left a better impression. For now, this reader is left wondering just how a Salman Rushdie blurb resembles an Oscar nomination.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)